In the afterglow of Sochi, Pres. Vladimir Putin’s drive to get respect from the world shifted into reverse as he invaded Ukraine’s attempt to leave his self defined orbit. Putin answered Western allies’ and President Obama’s offering of a velvet hand with a spiked club, invading the Crimea. The U.S. may not consider this reviving the Cold War, but I could not personally suppress some familiar emotions.
I remember vividly tanks rolling into Hungary in 1956 to crush a revolt. Dwight Eisenhower was president then and the U.S. did not answer with force. They recognized the U.S.S.R. Œs sphere; the world had been divided up by negotiation at the end of World War II in Yalta. While the US had the military power, we did not act because we feared unleashing a nuclear World War III. I was angry with our government’s inaction . It took years for me to accept that President Eisenhower was correct.
If Russia invades the rest of the Ukraine, then we are in a somewhat similar kind of a dilemma with some differences. The U.S. has made it clear military action is not on the West’s table (and nuclear war is certainly not), but there is understanding of Russia’s strategic interest in the Crimea. The Ukraine military is in no shape to take on Russia. In short, Russia is technically able to invade all of the Ukraine, but it would have to oversee a very oppressively brutal crackdown after a civil war and suffer repercussions unlike those in the U.S.S.R. era.
Domestic politics are different than in 1956, too. President Putin miscalculated in his attempt to bring the Ukraine further into his orbit and the revolution handed him a major defeat. He has supporters swelling with renewed national pride, his power depends on public support, and being aggressive offsets this loss. President Obama would look like another Chamberlain or repeating a muddled Syria policy if he did not take off the gloves, though as a lame duck he has much less politically at stake.
Russia’s economic and diplomatic position in the world is different, too. Russia is much more entwined with the West economically. The West could threaten economic sanctions against trade, freeze assets deposited in Western banks, give economic aid to the new Ukraine government, and isolate Russia diplomatically, denying their ability to play a role in international leadership. Whether these measures outweigh Putin’s need to control the Ukraine is yet to be seen. NATO ministers Sunday proposed international monitors to ensure ethnic rights to allow all sides to cool off.
The new Ukraine government overplayed its hand. It overturned a law giving official recognition to Russian as a second language, a signal they were not going to respect the rights of the large number of Russian speakers . The Russian ethnics felt that their rights and security were endangered, giving the Russian military a reason to sneak into the Crimea. This should be a lesson for future ‘spring’ movements anywhere else in the world where there are ethnic or religious divisions, such as Bosnia. Protection of minority and ethnic rights must be an enforceable and stated goal of any group aspiring to change a regime by force or by the ballot, or they lay the groundwork for a shaky future and meddling by outside forces.
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